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You Can Virtually Attend the Season's Best Film Festivals

Find out how to sign in to watch from the best seat in your house

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"Every time one starts a project, whether it's in a pandemic or not, it always feels like the first day of school,” Cate Blanchett, 51, declared at last week's Venice Film Festival press conference. Urging her audience and industry members to be courageous despite their pandemic fears, the surgical-mask-wearing Blanchett arrived at the Lido to head this year's jury at the festival, Europe's oldest and one of the “Big Five,” along with Cannes, Berlin, Sundance and Toronto.

International film festivals have long been out of the reach of the average American moviegoer. And yet, while this streaming era has been challenging for those for whom dinner and a movie has been central to their weekly routine, there is a silver lining. For AARP's avid movie watchers, the collateral benefit is that many domestic festivals have responded to the pandemic by migrating large parts of their programs online for the very first time. Home viewers have new access to elite and far-flung film festivals from their television consoles. Movie lovers from Poughkeepsie to Tulsa to Tempe can now access, for the price of admission, links to film offerings that might not have made it to their local cineplexes or art houses until deep into the fall prestige film season, if ever.

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Here's how to connect to five fantastic fall festivals in the U.S.:

New York Film Festival (Sept. 25 to Oct. 11)

Now in its 58th season, and boasting a vividly colored, irony-drenched film poster by the legendary John Waters, 74, the prestigious Gotham-based event has taken the lead in streamlining programming and migrating much of its content online for this social distancing era.

Highlights: Frances McDormand, 63, makes another play for Oscar in Nomadland, written and directed by Chloe Zhao (The Rider), while Michelle Pfeiffer, 62, returns to the screen to close the festival with French Exit. Both are American premieres that won't open theatrically until December and early 2021.

Online HQ: The New York Film Festival

How to fest: General public tickets for virtual screenings are on sale. For a set fee, festival film links will be available to those in the United States and its territories for a specific time window. There's even a detailed support page with FAQs and an email help line.

AFI Latin American Film Festival (Sept. 25 to Oct. 7)

Now in its 31st year, the American Film Institute's annual celebration of Latin American cinema has gone entirely virtual, presenting 26 films from 20 nations and seven U.S. premieres.

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Highlights: Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain, the director of the 2016 creative biopic Jackie, which reaped a best actress nomination for star Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, returns with opening nighter Ema. The film, which will also play at the Toronto International Film Festival, pairs Gael Garcia Bernal (Neruda) and breakout Mariana Di Girolamo in the title role as a choreographer-dancer couple coping with an adoption gone awry set against a reggaeton backdrop.

Online HQ: AFI Latin American Film Festival

How to fest: Access to festival films is currently available here. Viewers have two options: a full festival pass at $150 for general admission or individual title links. While all films will be available via links, a minority will be available only to residents of Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland, where the festival is based.

Woodstock Film Festival (Sept. 30 to Oct. 4)

The self-described “fiercely independent” upstate New York event is a hipster destination for movie mavens — its annual prize is called the Maverick Award, and honorees have included Frida and The Glorias director Julie Taymor, 67, who brought The Lion King to Broadway.

Highlights: The 21st annual festival continues the trend of powerful documentaries of women in politics with Abby Ginzberg's Truth to Power: Barbara Lee Speaks for Me. Sen. Cory Booker, the late Rep. John Lewis, actor Danny Glover and author Alice Waters are among those chiming in on camera in praise of the California congresswoman.

Online HQ: Woodstock Film Festival

How to fest: The festival has long played by its own rules and, rather than offering links to specific movies, has chosen to offer packages that can be purchased here. For $150, access is provided to the entire festival, available virtually; $125 purchases films only, while just panels of speakers are $50.

The Hamptons International Film Festival (Oct. 10-14)

In recent years the Hamptons festival has developed a reputation as a desirable destination on the awards circuit, with a history of programming the best picture Oscar winner (The Shape of Water, Green Book, Parasite) months before it receives the statuette. (Full disclosure: I'm on the advisory board and have been attending since 1996.) This year, the festival has expanded to a seven-day virtual edition — fewer parties but more public access.

Highlights: The Spotlight film The Father pairs Anthony Hopkins, 80, and Olivia Colman as a dad and daughter coping with the cantankerous old man's declining mental capacity. A new documentary about the “Cats in the Cradle” and “Taxi” singer, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something, includes concert footage and interviews with Bruce Springsteen, 70, Pat Benatar, 67, and Billy Joel, 71.

Online HQ: The Hamptons International Film Festival

How to fest: For a fee, ticket purchasers will have access to a 48-hour window in which to watch the lion's share of the festival's features and shorts, as well as celebrity and filmmaker Q&A's. Individual tickets for virtual links to the general public will go on sale at the end of September. Keep an eye on things and make your plans, here.

Montclair Film Festival (Oct. 16-25)

Now in its ninth year, the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey postponed its March event due to COVID-19 and is repositioning itself in the packed fall season with virtual offerings.

Highlights: This is the hometown festival of New Jersey resident and active participant Stephen Colbert, 56, whose wife, Evelyn, is president of the organization's board. In the past, Colbert has interviewed Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 59, and Meryl Streep, 71, at live festival benefits.

Online HQ: Montclair Film Festival

How to fest: The full program will be announced Oct. 2. Montclair Film members will get first dibs on Oct. 5, and the general public can purchase access to links on Oct. 8. Keep an eye on things via the link, here.

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